London School of Economics
Religion and the media turn:
A review essay
Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere.
325 pp., illustrations, index.
ed. New York: Routledge, 2008. xv
Religion: Beyond a Concept.
Hent de Vries,
ed. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. xiv
A B S T R A C T
In this review essay, I consider three recent collections, one editedby anthropologists, one by an art historian, and one by aphilosopher, that reﬂect on what might be called “the media turn” inreligious studies. I situate these collections in relation to broadertrends and interests within anthropology, religious studies, andmedia studies, focusing in particular on the idea of religion asmediation, which involves, in part, a turn away from conceptions of belief and toward materiality and practice. [
religion, media,materiality, belief, the public sphere
he study of religion is undergoing what might beremembered in a generation’s time as “the mediaturn.” For one thing, this means that anthropolo-gists and others are focusing more than in the paston the social uses of media within religious life,even of such old media as printed texts and painted images(if more often radio, video and ﬁlm, audiocassettes, the In-ternet,andotherofthenewerandnewestkinds).Thistrendis a good thing in itself; more importantly, however, thisnew work has, at its best, started a wholesale engagement with and evaluation of processes of mediation as schol-ars attempt to rethink how we should understand the very concept of “religion.” Within much of this work, religionis understood
mediation—a set of practices and ideasthatcannotbeunderstoodwithoutthemiddlegroundsthatsubstantiatethem.Suchaperspectivecreatessomeexciting opportunities, if also a few dangers. All three volumes under review here are noteworthy contributions to the media turn. Birgit Meyer and AnneliesMoors’s
Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere
focuses at-tention on two of the most well-developed arguments toemerge thus far: ﬁrst, that the version of secular moder-nity in which religion is considered private is untenable;and, second, that mass media and religion are not, con-comitantly, irreconcilable. Religion, in other words, is pub-lic, and religions have not been killed by television. Hentde Vries’s tome (that is the best word),
Religion: Beyond a Concept,
reminds readers that, among other things, using such terms as
without scare quotesand caveats, as I have just done, is either very naive or very brave. His particular insight—shared by several other au-thors in his collection and made possible by this idea of religion as mediation—is that it is perhaps both naive andbrave. David Morgan’s
Key Words in Religion, Media, and Culture
is evidence of an arrival of sorts, an indication of just howimportantit hasalreadybecomeforscholarsofre-ligion to consider their subject in relation to its media andtheir materiality.
In constellation: The books
With apologies to the individual authors—all 70 of them—I am not able here to touch on every chapter in any depth(there are 74). In the case of de Vries’s collection, this se-lectivity is made somewhat easier to justify by the fact thatnot all the chapters address the themes of media or medi-ation, although it is worth noting that the batch of essaysmost explicitly relevant (the eight in part 6: “Materiality,Mediatization, Experience”) are not the only ones to do so:Several essays located in other parts of the volume, includ-ing those by Jos´e Casanova, Jan Assmann, Charles Taylor, Veena Das, R´egis Debray, Willem B. Drees, Patricia Spyer,Talal Asad, Michael Warner, and Peter van der Veer addressmediation in one sense or another (via discussions of the
, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 371–379, ISSN 0094-0496, online ISSN 1548-1425.
2010 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2010.01261.x